North Korea’s bombastic threats are jangling nerves in both the United States and in Asia, with many analysts worried that the war of words between President Trump and Kim Jong Un will turn into an actual war — and possibly a nuclear one.
Both leaders are trying to outdo each other in the insult department, from "rocket man" and "dotard" to "little rocket man" and "the ringleader of aggressors."
Although the threats are colorful — on both sides — experts on North Korea say they are in keeping with North Korea’s history of bluster and do not signal a significant change in North Korea’s thinking.
“I’m not concerned. North Korea likes colorful rhetoric, and they always have,” said Tatiana Gabroussenko, a specialist on North Korean propaganda who teaches at Korea University in Seoul. “The problem now is Mr. Trump. He reacts, he answers, he tweets, so he’s making it visible.”
Trump on Tuesday warned that if the United States decides to take military action against North Korea, it would be "devastating."
The comment prompted a rebuke from Pyongyang. “Trump declared a war against the DPRK through his wild remarks,” declared an editorial Wednesday in Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the Korean Workers’ Party.
“The army and people of the DPRK will surely make the old lunatic pay for his rude speech,” it said, using the official abbreviation for North Korea.
After Trump called Kim “rocket man” during his address to the United Nations General Assembly last week, the North Korean leader issued a highly unusual and direct statement about the American president, calling him “mentally deranged” and saying he would pay for the insult.
Trump doubled down, calling Kim “little rocket man,” leading the North Korean foreign minister to say the president had declared war and to issue a brazen threat to shoot down American warplanes even if they are not in North Korean airspace.
With American fighter jets now doing drills across South Korea, near the border with the North, on a regular basis, many experts are worried about the possibility for miscalculation or misunderstanding.
North Korea has continued churning out propaganda with its trademark braggadocio.
“U.S. imperialist warmongers are bluffing, being buoyed by war fever, after proposing ‘military counteraction’ against the DPRK again,” the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Tuesday. “Literally, the whole country is permeated with the spirit to annihilate war maniac and old lunatic Trump on the earth.”
These threats have gone the North Korean version of viral. More than 100,000 people took part in a regime-organized rally in Pyongyang on Saturday to show they were ready to “remove the U.S. imperialists, the sworn enemy, from the globe,” KCNA reported.
Photos from the rally showed orderly columns of men in workers’ suits and students in white shirts and red ties, some holding signs declaring, “The U.S. is the headquarters of evil.”
KCNA quoted one participant as saying that Trump’s recent comments were the “most ignorant remarks ever known in history,” while another said they were “insane.”
But Gabroussenko said these kinds of demonstrations are not new in North Korea. The change has been in the attention being paid to the rhetoric, not in the rhetoric itself.
“You can go back to North Korean rhetoric from the 1950s and find this kind of anti-Americanism,” she said. “Anti-Americanism is the basis of North Korean culture and history.”
Shen Dingli, deputy dean of the Institute of International Affairs at Fudan University in Shanghai, agreed that the rhetoric is overblown.
“All these provocations are verbal,” Shen said, adding that Pyongyang does not want war.
“North Korea already threatened to attack Guam, but they didn’t. Its artillery can blast Seoul, and any of its nuclear weapons could turn Northeast Asia upside down. But would they start a war first?” he said. “No, their nuclear weapons are for self-defense, and they are aware the United States will wipe them off the Earth if they hit it.”
At the same time that North Korea has been making these incendiary statements about the United States, there has also been a remarkable — and almost entirely overlooked — outburst directed at China.
A commentary published Friday on KCNA and signed by “Jong Phil” ostensibly attacked China’s “rude” and “shameless” media for saying North Korea deserved to be sanctioned by the United Nations over its nuclear weapons program.
This was a veiled criticism of Chinese President Xi Jinping just three weeks before he opens the Congress of the Communist Party, which is held every five years. Adam Cathcart, a China scholar at the University of Leeds who reads North Korea’s propaganda closely, believes that “Jong Phil” is a pen name for Kim himself, just as Mao and Stalin used aliases to write signed editorials.
This is the third such editorial this year by “Jong Phil” — which means “Righteous Pen” — and the most pointed. The week after China backed tough new sanctions on North Korea through the United Nations, it accused Chinese state media of “kowtowing to the ignorant acts of the Trump administration.”
North Korea was wondering how a fellow “socialist” country could “maliciously” collude with “the imperialists,” the editorial said.
“This leaves us thinking whether they should be entitled to enter the coming party conference hall only when they register the dirty reptile records of betraying the peoples of the two countries,” the editorial said, alluding to the upcoming congress.
Cathcart said the statement was extraordinary, given that China is North Korea’s biggest trading partner and protector. “They’re basically accusing China of being revisionists who have no idea how happy the people of North Korea are,” he said.
Nor was it clear why North Korea would risk making such a statement at such an important time for the Chinese Communist Party. “They’re basically telling China to go back to their socialist roots. What’s the long-term tactical thinking here?”
But Cathcart was encouraged by recent efforts to forge new links with the Trump administration.
Shen added that all of this rhetoric is designed to increase the temperature and bring about a return to talks, albeit on North Korea’s terms of being recognized as a nuclear weapons state.
That means the United States now has two options, he said: Reject talks with North Korea and watch it build more and more nuclear weapons, or hold talks with North Korea so Pyongyang will suspend its nuclear development.
“The United States needs to choose the less harmful option of the two,” Shen said.
Fifield reported from Bern, Switzerland. Rauhala reported from Beijing. Shirley Feng in Beijing contributed to this report.